share on:

In a speech to the American Bar Association on August 12, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder contrasted what he termed as inadequate “20th century” approaches to criminal justice with the Justice Department’s new proposals for “smarter,” “evidence-based” solutions.

Holder spoke of the need to direct limited crime-fighting resources toward violent offenses and to increase the use of incarceration alternatives for offenders who do not pose a safety threat. In light of the “outsized, unnecessarily large prison population,” the criminal justice system and communities “need to ensure that incarceration is used to punish, deter, and rehabilitate – not merely to warehouse and forget.”

The Attorney General announced a series of recommendations intended to “intelligence-driven strategies,” including:

  • Modifying guidelines for “mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related crimes.” The inflexibility of current sentencing standards has resulted in the costly incarceration of nonviolent offenders who might be better served by treatment programs. In response, Holder has altered “charging policies so that certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders who have no ties to large-scale organizations, gangs, or cartels will no longer be charged with offenses that impose draconian mandatory minimum sentences. . . . By reserving the most severe penalties for serious, high-level, or violent drug traffickers, we can better promote public safety, deterrence, and rehabilitation – while making our expenditures smarter and more productive.”
  • An intent to enhance “the use of diversion programs – such as drug treatment and community service initiatives – that can serve as effective alternatives to incarceration.” Holder’s endorsement of diversion programs for nonviolent offenders echoes recommendations from other federal agencies, such as the National Transportation Safety Board, which has urged the use of drug courts and 24/7 Sobriety Programs for cost-effective, long-term solutions to the crime of impaired driving.

Holder summed up by stating, “while the aggressive enforcement of federal criminal statutes remains necessary, we cannot simply prosecute or incarcerate our way to becoming a safer nation.  To be effective, federal efforts must also focus on prevention and reentry.  We must never stop being tough on crime.  But we must also be smart and efficient when battling crime and the conditions and the individual choices that breed it.”

Reactions to the speech

These recommendations have earned support on both sides of the political aisle. Reducing the prison population and associated costs, using a more local approach to criminal charges and sentencing, and applying evidence-based solutions are popular with lawmakers in both blue and red states.

But some are arguing that the proposals represent few actual changes to current practices. In an article for, Emily Bazelon notes, “Prosecutors always have discretion over which crimes to charge. They’re looking at a menu of statutes. They can pick the one that means they’re throwing the book at you, or not. In some cases, they already don’t indict in a way that triggers a mandatory minimum.” In fact, she states “the attorney general is merely centralizing the decision-making that already occurs.”

One of the biggest questions the speech raised is how will the proposals impact people already behind bars? Cora Currier at ProPublica points out that “Holder’s initiative has little to offer prisoners already behind bars. He directed prosecutors to avoid charges that carried mandatory minimum sentences for certain low-level, nonviolent drug offenders and urged the passage of legislation to change those sentencing requirements. But in 2010, there were more than 75,000 people in federal custody that had been given mandatory sentences.”

To further complicate the issue, an opinion piece for the Delaware News Journal argues that offenders who are currently incarcerated for non-violent crimes create a unique challenge because “there is much anecdotal evidence that petty drug users and dealers, who posed no public threat before incarceration, leave prison as more experienced criminals.”

As AP reporter Pete Yost notes, ultimately, “The unanswered question is how each of the 94 U.S. Attorneys offices around the country will implement changes, given the authority of prosecutors to exercise discretion in how they handle their criminal cases.”

What do you think about these proposals? Are they a smarter approach to sentencing and incarceration? How do you think they will impact your jurisdiction?

Sobering Up Administrator

Sobering Up Administrator

Sobering Up: A blog about drunk driving, alcohol addiction, and criminal justice, is anything but a corporate blog. Sobering Up is an opportunity for anyone interested or involved in the issues of drunk driving, alcohol-fueled crime, alcohol dependence and addiction, and the justice system to participate in the conversation.


  1. Maybe he should think a little harder about the solutions to treatment then. Who is going to pay for this supposed treatment? When they don’t comply what should we do with them then. They can’t afford it, they don’t want to stop. Not to mention that smaller crimes lead to bigger ones. Just because their not violent doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have to pay the price for their crime. Why don’t you just say its ok to burglarize someones home, as long as you don’t hurt someone. Maybe they were just on drugs. Think about what you are saying. They have to be held accountable for their actions or they will continue to do the same behavior.

    1. You’re asking who is going to pay for this treatment? If you’re a US citizen, right now you’re the one paying for these people to be incarcerated. This proposal is to take a more cost-effective approach so that your tax dollars are going to better use. The 24-7 Sobriety program he mentions is not some luxury treatment center an offender gets sent to for committing a crime. Not only is it a way to make the offender “accountable for their actions”, it also helps the offender change their behavior and is cheaper than sending them to jail for their crime where they are housed and fed for a much higher expense. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure… it’s easy to see this is a smart idea.

  2. I for one , am VERY thankful to the AG, for implementing/supporting this approach
    I agree there are many incarcerated people , who “come out” more of a criminal. I also agree , a non-violent crime , should have an outlet to be Supervisedf , yet NOT cost the taxpayers exhorbient fees [ incarerated , 1 criminal can cost the tax payers ONE MILLION DOLLARS ANNUALY ] . I am a 3rd offender DUI person. I would ,loose my home, farm animals,livlyhood, if incarcerated . Leaving me basicaly a Homeless person , when released . I AM SO THANKFUL for the SCRAM , Alcohol Monitoring opportunity .[ just found out about it , court on Dec 15,2013 , hope to start BEFORE court date ]
    Thank you Attourney General Holder, for this advanced Thinking , saving economic’s, and ALL you do.
    Christopher Wren , Nebo NC

Leave a Response

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.